Trading Snow Days for eLearning Days

Snow Days! The kids can’t wait for them…until they have to “make them up” at the end of the school year.

For rural school districts, snow days are inevitable; even the most urban school districts are not immune to Mother Nature’s elements. Every year, our rural Indiana school district experiences harsh weather that forces our schools to close for several days, robbing our students of instructional time.

AMLE talks with author Bobby Thompson about eLearning Days

The make-up days model didn’t seem to work, so we began to research alternative options that might better fit the needs of our school community. Our search led us to the Indiana Department of Education website, where we took notice of a new opportunity called the Inclement Weather Virtual Learning Option. This opportunity helps schools provide learning activities for students at home when school buildings are closed due to bad weather.

This option made sense for us, especially given our recent districtwide 1:1 technology initiative. We were excited to implement a plan that would maximize instruction time and allow us to keep our students and staff safe when road conditions are hazardous.

eLearning Day Lessons

We already let data drive our decisions, so it made sense to let our data drive the development of lessons for these unexpected virtual learning days. We use our state assessment and our local formative assessments to identify areas in which our students need extra practice and instruction. The deficient areas we identify become the topics around which we build our eLearning Day lessons.

We ask our teachers to develop five lessons, substantial and rigorous enough to justify counting the day as an actual full school day. These five lessons address topics based on the deficient areas we identified. Creating these “eBundles” of lessons in advance helps ensure they are immediately available when school is canceled.

For students, the typical eLearning Day looks very similar to a normal school day. Lessons are loaded electronically onto our classroom management program, which our teachers often use to provide lessons and materials as well as support when needed.

Students work through the material for all the classes on their daily schedule, including specials such as art, music, band, and physical education, and submit their assignments through the system.

Some Challenges

Inevitably, there are issues outside our control we need to troubleshoot—Internet connectivity is our biggest. Some students don’t have Internet access available at home or at a caregiver’s; sometimes Internet is not available due to the weather.

So, prior to launching the eLearning Days program, we polled each household to determine each child’s access to the Internet. Students who don’t have Internet access can download lessons ahead of time onto their school devices so they can still work on their “eBundle” from home. We also provide students with paper packets of lessons if they are unable to work on devices.

This allows all students the same opportunity as their peers whether they have Internet connectivity or not on these days. We also have a technology hotline open throughout the day to help answer technology-related questions.

Because students might need our teachers at different times throughout the day, not just during school hours, we set up virtual office hours. We ask teachers to dedicate three hours of their eLearning Day to the virtual office hours: two hours during the morning and one hour in the evening so they are available to students and their parents/guardians. They let students know their office hours and availability via a morning e-mail and/or online classroom posting.

It’s interesting to note that our teachers work just as hard, if not harder on these days. In addition to holding office hours, many communicate with students throughout the day as questions arise so students don’t have to wait for support.

Being Accountable

Students are held accountable for all the work assigned on eLearning Days.

What is the accountability for teachers and students on these days? In addition to the office hours and the initial correspondence with students, teachers track student “attendance” by keeping a record of conversations with students and the work students submit. This tracking is an ongoing process for the students who don’t have Internet access. Their attendance may get recorded after we return to school when their work is submitted.

We have found that our work submission rate is much higher on eLearning Days than it is on normal school days. We create opportunities outside of the school day for students to work on any unsubmitted eLearning assignments to make sure they are completing this work and putting in the time that is comparable to that of a typical school day.

Maximizing Learning

One of the unforeseen benefits to our eLearning Days is the increase in student communication skills. Students are able to articulate questions in a way that makes sense so they receive the information they need. We’ve also noticed an increase in the amount of collaboration that occurs digitally for our students; they build their own virtual study and support groups and are learning workplace skills.

On eLearning Days, students choose when and where to complete their work.

Students say they like the freedom to take their classes in the order they desire, and they also like to have a voice in how they manage their time. Our younger students typically wake up and get started with their assignments right away, whereas our older students sleep longer, get started later in the day, and work well into the evening.

For us, eLearning Days maximize learning during a crucial time of the year when learning can be disrupted. We believe the opportunity for growth and increased achievement is far greater on these inclement weather days than it is when schools tack on snow make–up days at the end of the year after the state achievement tests have already been administered or when they add additional minutes to the end of the school days as a way to make up for this time out of school.